Netflix is a fitting arc in the “Degrassi” narrative, which spans decades and includes award-winning shows such as “The Kids of Degrassi Street,” “Degrassi Junior High” and “Degrassi High.” Thanks to its 35-year history, the franchise boasts a quality that makes it perfect for the Internet: nostalgia.
As show insiders tell it, the Internet has been central to “Degrassi: The Next Generation” since it debuted in 2001, nearly a decade after the end of “Degrassi High.” The very first episode, in fact, featured a web-centric plotline — the show’s protagonist arranged to meet a boy with whom she had been chatting online, only to discover that her love interest was an adult predator. Off the air, the show kept its audience engaged with a Web site that allowed fans to enroll as students at a virtual Degrassi.
Stephen Stohn, the show’s executive producer, saw that Web site, and the show’s overall digital presence, as integral to the audience experience. Users could send e-mails (branded as dmails) to other fans and interact with characters on the show. A character might, say, post to a community board, asking for suggestions for the school’s upcoming dance.
“The word blog didn’t exist back then, but they were effectively posting blogs. You could create surveys and you could post pictures,” Stohn recalled in a phone interview, noting that “it was primitive; it’s not like posting pictures today.” In retrospect, the site, which Stohn estimates had 900,000 “students” enrolled at the height of its popularity, evokes social networks that would come years later. Stohn likens it to “MySpace before MySpace was invented.”
A 2005 New York Times Magazine article, which dubbed “Degrassi” “tha BEst Teen TV N da WRLD!,” noted the continued popularity of the show’s Web site, where “kids register in faux homerooms, decorate their online lockers and speculate with grave sincerity on which character they’d be most likely to befriend if they actually attended Degrassi.”
“There would always be someone who would write in, ‘You idiots, don’t you realize those are just writers at ‘Degrassi.’ That’s not Ashley talking. Ashley’s just a made-up character,'” Stohn said, adding that “the next post would be something like ‘Yeah yeah, I know that. Now Ashley, here’s what I think you should do about the dance…'”
Stohn is married to “Degrassi’s” co-creator, Linda Schuyler. They met when Schuyler, a former schoolteacher, was trying to buy the film rights to a book called “Ida Makes a Movie” (which gave way to “The Kids of Degrassi Street”) and sought legal advice from Stohn, an entertainment lawyer. They’ve co-produced a number of shows beyond “Degrassi,” including the late ’90s Canadian soap opera “Riverdale” and “Instant Star,” which aired in the United States from 2004 to 2008 on TeenNick (then known as The N).
“I like to consider myself to be the guardian of the core principles and values of the show and the storytelling,” Schuyler explained by phone. “Stephen is the guardian of making sure we keep technically and digitally as much ahead of the curve as we possibly can.”
Schuyler said that integrating digital culture — and eventually social media — went hand-in-hand with the show’s core themes, at the center of which is a desire to “reassure young people that they are not alone.” “Also, to be very bold about issues,” Schuyler added. “I don’t mean sensational or trivial, I just mean bold. If the kids are talking about it, we should talk about it in our show.”
Nothing has been off limits for the franchise, known for tackling (often controversial) topics affecting teens, including LGBT issues, school violence, teen pregnancy, abortion, drug use, sexual assault, self-harm and suicide. While the values of the show remained the same, “Degrassi: The Next Generation” had to acknowledge that the way in which teenagers communicated had changed and has continued to do so as technology has evolved.
“I feel we’re doing two things at the same time,” Schuyler said. “We have the consistency of our messaging, which is trying to be very authentic and true to current teenage emotion, but at the same time keeping very on topic and respecting the fact that how [teenagers] communicate with one another changes. And we have to keep our show very relevant and very fresh to keep up with those changes.”
Social media is an integral part of television today — Nielsen began measuring Twitter conversations about television shows in 2013 and quickly learned that a strong social media following translated into ratings for shows and live events. Shows like “Scandal,” “Empire” and “The Walking Dead” have capitalized on Twitter buzz in particular, creating custom hashtags for viewers to tweet at key points in the storyline.
The 14th season of “Degrassi: The Next Generation,” which nabbed its fourth Emmy nomination on Thursday, will air its last two weeks of episodes starting Monday. Teen Nick is encouraging fans to tweet about their favorite parts of the show with the hashtag #MyDegrassiMoment. In today’s digital landscape, it’s not surprising that “Degrassi” fans can follow the show’s actors, producers and writing staff on Twitter, marvel at Drake’s career trajectory on Instagram or reminisce about past seasons on Tumblr.
But the Internet also plays a huge role in “Degrassi” story lines. Social networking sites first crept into “Degrassi” scripts with MyRoom and FaceRange, which made its “Degrassi” debut in season eight. As one fan pointed out in a very Canadian tweet earlier this year, the writing staff has been pretty clever when it comes to naming social networks and apps.
Last season, one character saw her sexual assault captured in a video posted to HastyGram. “Degrassi” isn’t as pulled-from-the-headlines as, say, a “Law and Order: SVU,” but Schuyler said that particular storyline had roots in the Steubenville case and other similar cases.
There are, of course, legal reasons for the social network aliases. One exception is Twitter, which Stohn says has always been referred to as Twitter on the show.
“With Twitter, we just decided … we were never going to do anything negative, it would just be sort of normal things that people would tweet and we would actually tweet them in character,” Stohn said. “Once we realized that maybe we’re using this Facebook-like piece of social media and it was doing things like spreading a bullying message or something like that, we didn’t want to ascribe that to a real entity so that became FaceRange.”
It’s not uncommon for members of the show’s writing staff to go into local schools and talk to students about the issues they’re facing and how they’re communicating with each other. More recent episodes have been fueled by a scandal unfolding on a social app called Oomfchat. In that regard, “Degrassi” is not unlike other shows geared toward teenagers. But it’s worth taking a look at the franchise’s larger digital universe, which predated even social media pioneering shows like “Gossip Girl.”
Stohn started his own blog in season three, sharing behind-the-scenes tidbits with fans. During the show’s fifth season, the production team launched a series of webisodes called “Degrassi Minis.”
In part, Stohn said, the inspiration behind the show’s short-form web content came from a somewhat unlikely source: the spy thriller “24,” which had produced short webisodes based around minor characters. “Degrassi’s” production team took it a step further, using the show’s own set and actors to film alternate reality scenarios, often reimagining story lines or swapping character identities.
One of Stohn’s favorites is a webisode that cast Degrassi students as pirates. “We all loved that because none of our actors knew what a pirate sounded like, so they were sort of saying ‘arrgh’ in an Irish accent,” Stohn said. “It was hilarious.”
Stohn made a cameo in another webisode that featured a Degrassi reunion event. “This turned out to be prophetic,” he remembers, noting that Drake’s character, Jimmy Brooks, was revealed to be the most successful of his classmates. “I don’t think he came back as a rapper, but he had an entourage,” Stohn said.
To date, “Degrassi” has produced more than 100 original scripted webisodes, according to the franchise’s recently relaunched Web site, which chronicles its 35-year history. For Stohn and Schuyler, a home on Netflix brings that history full circle.
“Now that we look back and we go ‘oh my gosh, this year we’re going to be doing the 500th episode of the series. We’re into our 35th year of production. We’re on Netflix.’ It’s quite astonishing,” said Schuyler, who says she “couldn’t be more excited” about the move.
Stohn says Netflix is a dream come true.
“For the past few years we’ve realized the teen audience is, more and more, leaving linear television and moving online and it was our dream because we wanted to reach the teen audience and we wanted to reach them in the digital space,” Stohn said.
“The thought that we could be on Netflix, worldwide, reaching teens through the medium that they are engaging in day in and day out, it’s just…”
Stohn paused for a second and thought of a tweet he sent last month to his more than 24,000 followers after the announcement was made: